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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

Risking it all

It all felt sadly, appallingly familiar.

When the inquest jury concluded that failings by the police, probation and MI5 had contributed to the deaths of Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt at Fishmongers’ Hall in London it reminded me of three other cases where those entrusted with protecting the public simply hadn’t done what they should have done. The failings in each case were similar to those which led to the killings of the two University of Cambridge graduates in November 2019 - but none involved a convicted terrorist. It serves as a reminder that we should not see what Usman Khan did at Fishmongers’ Hall as an isolated event, unique to terrorism.

In 2016, there was the case of Leroy Campbell, a violent sex offender who raped and murdered 37-year-old Lisa Skidmore, attempted to kill her elderly mother and set fire to Lisa’s flat in Wolverhampton. At the time, Campbell was under probation supervision, having been released from prison four months earlier. An official review said the “most striking” of a string of failings was a decision by probation staff “not to respond actively enough to a clear indication that risk may be increasing notably”.

The following year, 28-year-old Quyen Nguyen was found burned to death in her car, near Sunderland. She’d been held captive, tortured and raped. The two men responsible for her murder, Stephen Unwin and William McFall, were both convicted killers who’d been on life licence after being let out of prison. At the inquest into Quyen’s death, the Coroner pointed to a series of mistakes in the way Unwin and McFall had been monitored saying they’d been “emboldened in all of their unlawful activities by what they must have perceived as the failures on the part of the authorities to expose their deceit”.

And in 2019, the year of the Fishmongers’ Hall attacks, a convicted burglar, Joseph McCann, carried out a terrifying campaign of sexual violence against eleven women and children two months after he’d been released from prison. An independent report set out a number of shocking failings including the loss of crucial information as probation officers struggled to deal with their caseloads. Staff missed eight opportunities to activate the recall process and send McCann back to jail, before he launched the attacks.

The circumstances of each of these cases are different, of course, but the themes, when examined in detail, are the same: a readiness to accept the word of manipulative, dangerous offenders allied to a lack of curiosity about what they were up to; a failure by agencies and staff to share vital information; and poor case management linked to pressures of workload and inexperience. The themes will doubtless ring a bell or two for those who’ve followed the Fishmongers’ Hall inquest.

However, the focus of the Government’s response to that avoidable tragedy has been to frame it almost completely in the context of terrorism. So there’ll be tougher sentences in terror cases, with more terrorism prisoners assessed for release by the Parole Board; polygraph tests for terrorism offenders on licence will be introduced; and more probation staff and psychologists will be trained in counter-terrorism. These are welcome developments but they don’t get to the heart of the problem: the system for rehabilitating all offenders, for managing them in the community, for protecting the public has been severely stretched to the point where, in some areas of England and Wales, it is all but broken.

Although a number of agencies play a part in monitoring offenders, the responsibility primarily falls on the probation system whose deficiencies have been highlighted in a succession of worrying reports. In his annual review, in December 2020, Justin Russell, the chief inspector of probation, set out his concerns. “For more than 15 years, probation funding has been on a downward trend,” he said. “Government spending per person under supervision is down 40% in real terms since 2003/2004.” Russell said the area which suffered from the “weakest performance” and which “most concerned” him was work managing the risk of harm, in other words, protecting people. “Time and again, we are finding that some of the fundamental tasks of effective risk management have been missed,” he wrote.

So what is the remedy? Ministers are pinning their hopes on a new model of offender supervision to be implemented on June 26. It is a massive and complex change that involves staff from 54 separate organisations, including 7,500 in the private and voluntary sectors, coming together under the auspices of the state-run National Probation Service. That the preparations for the overhaul are taking place during a pandemic has made it all the more challenging. Indeed, in his latest report, Russell revealed that it could take “at least four years” for the new structure to be fully in place. “There will be inherent risks,” the chief inspector warned, citing “acute” staff shortages in some places, potential “gaps” in rehabilitation support and concerns that progress in helping prisoners resettle in communities will be set back.

The consensus is that the new, unified probation system will be more effective than the existing two-tier set up, under which low and medium risk offenders are dealt with by privately-owned community rehabilitation companies and those posing the highest threat supervised by the state. However, as Russell has noted, the reforms are not a “magic bullet” and must be backed by extra resources, particularly so that vacancies can be filled and staff receive the training they need.

For probation officers, change is nothing new. The Government promised a “rehabilitation revolution” in 2010, repeating the pledge in 2012 when its ill-conceived plans to partially privatise the system were announced. The “revolution” never materialised and in many respects rehabilitation provision and offender management have deteriorated over the past decade, increasing the risks to the public.

We will never know whether a properly funded and less battered probation service would have stopped Campbell, Unwin, McFall, McCann or even Khan. And we shouldn’t pretend that the risks posed by offenders can be eliminated through better information sharing, more sophisticated training and rigorous case management. But treating offender management as a service in its own right, a service delivered by a probation system which is invested in, nurtured and valued, will undoubtedly reduce the risks and help save lives.

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